Funding crisis threatens return hopes of thousands of Burundian refugees
GENEVA, October 28 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency warned on Friday that it will have to reduce or even suspend its biggest voluntary repatriation in Africa unless it quickly receives the money it has been calling for to help hundreds of thousands of Burundian refugees return home. The agency also said that it may have to suspend its support for reintegration activities within Burundi unless more funds are forthcoming.
Since 2001, the refugee agency has helped some 285,000 Burundians return to their homeland - 58,000 since the start of 2005 alone. It is the largest ongoing voluntary repatriation operation anywhere in the world after Afghanistan. Nevertheless, there are still at least 400,000 Burundian refugees in neighbouring Tanzania alone, many of whom wish to go home.
"It would be a real tragedy to lose the opportunity of helping Burundian refugees realise their dream of returning home because of lack of money," said Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Wendy Chamberlin in Geneva on Friday. "It will be deeply distressing to all UNHCR staff if we have to let so many refugees down, and in the next few days we will be doing all we can to make sure the international community hears our pleas and understands how much is at stake."
Out of the US$ 62 million it had appealed for in order to finance its voluntary repatriation operation to Burundi in 2005, UNHCR has received only $29 million - a shortfall of about 52 percent. UNHCR is currently relying on emergency funds from its operational reserve in order to continue its activities. It warns, however, that it cannot rely on such sources for more than a few weeks at the very most. The operational reserve is also being heavily drawn on for the Pakistan earthquake emergency, and has to be replenished in case other new emergencies occur.
"This funding crisis could not come at a more critical time for the operation and for the region," Chamberlin added, "it comes just as Burundi is returning to peace and security and settling down to the enormous task of reconstruction and stabilization."
The election of President Pierre Nkurunziza in August of this year effectively concluded Burundi's process of political transition, a process that began with the 2001 Arusha peace accords, in which Nelson Mandela played a key role.
Nkurunziza's election triggered a remarkable increase in the number of Burundian refugees returning home. Since August, between 12,000 and 15,000 people have been repatriating every month, most of them from neighbouring Tanzania, where they fled in the mid-to-late 1990s to seek refuge from the violence that was tearing Burundi apart. Some Burundian refugees, however, have been in Tanzania much longer, having fled a previous wave of violence in the 1970s.
The new Burundian government faces enormous challenges as it strives to achieve a stable peace: the reconstruction of homes and infrastructure; the creation of health and education facilities; and the reintegration of hundreds of thousands of returning refugees and internally displaced people.
This year, UNHCR had planned to build almost 23,000 homes, 48 schools with a total of 245 classrooms and 14 health centres.
"Because of lack of funds, we have had to revise these numbers to 43 schools and 11 health centres but if the current financial crisis continues we will have to stop all building programmes," said UNHCR's chief spokesman Ron Redmond. "Income-generating activities and professional training programmes benefiting some 10,000 people will also be suspended."
Despite the large number of returns to Burundi over the past few years, there are still 400,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania alone, a country that is also home to some 150,000 Congolese refugees. Most Burundian refugees live in large camps in the west of the country and have been facing recurrent food shortages. Earlier this year, UNHCR and the World Food Programme urgently appealed for funds in order to avoid further cuts in food rations.
"Against this background, any suspension of the voluntary repatriation because of lack of funds would raise very serious questions about the commitment of the international community to share the responsibility of caring for refugees," Redmond said. "With Tanzania itself in the middle of an electoral period, it could only send an unwelcome message at a sensitive time to a country that has shown great generosity towards refugees over the years."